This week, I received an unusual email from an acquaintance. The gist of the it was that I was asked to send an email to 11 friends as part of a high school religion class project. I was advised that prayer was one of the best gifts that can be received. By simply copying and pasting the prescribed prayer into 11 separate emails, I would be sharing this gift.
My first reaction was: why not send a blind copy bulk email and save all the copying and pasting. That observation was quickly replaced with: why would I do this? I come from a generation that actually handwrote chain letters. I rued the day that I received my first chain letter: the threatening guilt-laden closing sentence still comes to mind. What horrible curse was I to bring on my family and myself by not continuing the chain? I didn’t know twenty people to continue the chain let alone have the wherewithal to bear the cost of postage on my weekly pre-adolescent 1960’s allowance (read: non-existent!). Just thinking about, I wonder if this was not the seed of my neurosis with guilt. Hmmm; I’ll worry about that later. Alright: back to the matter at hand.
After serious contemplation, I responded to the email sender:
Well, I do pray and I hope that my life is a prayer but I don’t use email this way. Almost daily, I receive chain mail style email (prayer and otherwise) that I resent (as in despise; delete). Before photocopiers, folks actually had to write this stuff out and that curtailed the masses. Photocopiers made chain mail easier; email has made it an epidemic. Email prayer: Sorry, no! No copying or pasting; I will pray the specified prayer for 11 souls and trust in the powerful mystery of faith.
The exercise made me stop and think about how I use the internet in my faith journey. I frequent a few sites daily. A Benedictine monk’s daily reflections, an Episcopalian cafe and a spirituality reader are favourites.
The Diocese of Montreal’s excellent weekly lectionary with commentary and links to an incredible Christian art online reference library is a shortcut on my desktop. Incorporated into my lectio divina practice, I have found this site to be very helpful as I leave the lectionary open (well, to be honest-it's on the desktop as an RSS feed) and throughout the day read and reflect on the words and art.
So, what then, do you ask, is my problem with email prayer? Well you may ask. It’s all about me. In the September blog entry “Ora and Labora”, I set out my evolving thoughts on that ‘most elusive Christian concept’, prayer, as Joan Chittester describes it. I won’t bore you with re-iteration; my prayer is about inward communication and personal relationship with Another.
Communication and community seem to originate from the same root word: communicatus; to make common. And for me, therein lies the most potential for this relatively new technology. The St. James’ website was a sleeping creature for a couple of years before David Howard decided to rattle its chains. Slowly and sometimes crumpily, the silent creature is awakening.
Since April 11 2008, we have been encouraging the parish to embrace the critter. Weekly, a bulk email is circulated within the parish roster. Most parishioners don’t reply to the email, but our sense is that they respond. By year’s end, we expect to be well over the 2500 hit mark on our tiny counter seated at the bottom of the homepage. This number is tiny by comparison to the some of the hits I’ve seen on YouTube (where dancing dog home videos may receive over a million hits, go figure). However, the really important part about our number is that it is us: our parish. For a parish with an active roster hovering near the two hundred mark, this is significant.
And a simple, little note each week has been doing the work of communicatio, making common, the life of the parish for the parish.
Another important part of the website has been to communicate the life of the community visually-through the embedded slideshow. I'm convinced that David's ministry is not only psychological but photographic (or maybe I am using this as a rationalization for him to significantly upgrade the current camera equipment), but if we want to really pull people together, electronically, post pictures! The posting of The Amazing Weekend slideshow created a noticeable change in traffic on the website.
This month, the parish website enters a new era. In welcoming the new church year, we have moved to have the homepage reflect the current church season: with the season's liturgical colour and in the weekly lectionary message-through word and image. Perhaps I am doing this just for myself as part of my lectio divina as I contemplate how to electronically present the week's message; if one other person benefits from the exercise that surpasses the expectation.
The internet is a powerful resource for exploration as part of one’s faith journey. The breadth of opinion, the depth of available scholarly reference vehicles and the ease of accessibility add to the lustre of this tool. But the fact remains: it is merely a robotic tool; much like the copy and paste of a prayer chain letter or a bulk email. The real work rests with the individual, within oneself and without, in the testy waters of community.